American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Gabriel" isn't a perfect movie, but it's a great reminder of what movies can do, and used to do often, until American movies decided to concentrate mainly on spectacle and franchise building and leave characterization to TV.
Rory Culkin ("You Can Count on Me") plays the title character, a teenaged boy who's first seen sitting on a bus, talking to a toddler through the crack of the seats in front of him. He eventually invites the toddler to sit next to him and teaches him how to pretend to smoke a cigarette using torn-up pieces of Twizzler candy. In due course, the toddler's mother arrives and takes her son away. We can understand why. Gabriel is a smart, eloquent, alert kid, but there's something off about him. He has no sense of boundaries or propriety, and he doesn't think before he speaks or acts. He's sensitive and wounded and often insufferably hypersensitive. He can be arrogant and hostile. At dinner with his mother (Deirdre O’Connell) and older brother (David Call), he waves a small knife "menacingly," as if to make light of the ridiculousness of the idea that he could menace anyone, but it is quite menacing.
Gabriel was recently released from a mental hospital. He's been prescribed medication but resists taking it, even when his mother practically begs him to. Is he violent? He's definitely erratic in his behavior, and unrealistic about his prospects, especially where a college student named Alice (Emily Meade) is concerned. She was affectionate with him once, and now he wants to marry her. This seems like one of those missions that can't end well.
Although "Gabriel" has no first-person narration, just scene after scene of observed behavior, watching it reminded me of reading "The Catcher in the Rye" for the first time. Gabriel comes from an upper-middle class, possibly wealthy home. His family and friends move in the sorts of circles where people are assumed to attend private school, and have second homes, and generally try to keep things like mental illness under wraps. Holden Caulfield didn't have exactly the same issues as Gabriel, but Gabriel has quite a few Holden-esque qualities, including a fascination with children and innocence, a tendency to run away (or run off) rather than deal with problems, and a propensity for depressive introversion and extreme mood swings. (He's the sort of kid who can heap abuse on himself, then hopefully announce "I deserve love" moments later.) Gabriel also displays a particular kind of adolescent self-consciousness that leads him to micro-analyze the language and behavior of others as well as himself, but without the analysis really leading anywhere. The film has a gently paralyzed quality. Everyone's so sensitive, and so trapped.